Piano Concerto (Elliott Carter)

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Order and Conflict: Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto

by Brooks Popwell

Note: For in-text examples, please refer to this link: [1]


I. Carter’s instrumentation for the Piano Concerto evokes bipolar moods.

1. Carter’s own words describe the bipolar mood.

2. Example 1a and 1b: Winds/brass bipolar writing

3. Example 2: Strings bipolar writing

II. Carter’s harmony for the Piano Concerto unites diverse material.

1. Analysis and Carter’s own words support trichordal precision.

2. Example 3: Juxtaposed trichords

3. Example 4: Melded trichords

4. Example 5: Wedge and interwoven trichords

Concerning the overall use of instrumentation in his Concerto for Piano, Elliott Carter relates succinctly, “The piano is born, then the orchestra teaches it what to say. The piano learns. Then it learns the orchestra is wrong. They fight and the piano wins—not triumphantly, but with a few, weak, sad notes—sort of Charlie Chaplin humorous.”[1] This overall schematic was apparently looming large in Carter’s mind throughout the work’s composition. In some of the first notebook sketches available, Carter lists contrasting adjectives to describe the solo piano and orchestra. He lines up such opposing descriptors as “expressive,” “fanciful,” and “brilliant” for the solo piano alongside “mechanical,” “routine,” and “dull” for the orchestra.[2] A later interview reveals that Carter subsequently came to conceive of a small concertino ensemble to augment the contrast, enabling a “high degree of pitch sensitivity” in contrast to the “rougher, more brutal treatment of pitch in the orchestra.”[3]

Examples 1a and 1b compare Carter’s scoring for winds and brass between the concertino and orchestral groups. Significantly, these first occurrences of each group immediately evoke the contrast detailed in Carter’s preliminary sketches. The diverse rhythms and fluctuating contours of the concertino winds in Example 1a weave together in a fashion that complements the opening subtleties of the solo piano in the previous measures. A striking contrast emerges with the first contributions of the orchestral brass in ms. 19-22, which present intervals +5 and +6 in a monotonous triplet pattern. Not even the increasingly varied pitch content of the fuller winds/brass entry cited in Example 1b below disturbs the underlying ostinato rhythm.

The string writing, like that of the brass and winds, reinforces the contrast Carter intended between the concertino and orchestral groups. Example 2 highlights the higher level of virtuosity allocated to the solo quartet. Intricate polyrhythms and interacting lines in the concertino stand in stark contrast to the pointillistic contributions of the orchestral strings. Moreover, sparse orchestral string writing characterizes some 60 measures following, an uninterrupted series of tied whole-note entries creating a steady buildup. Carter instructs that this extended passage serves simply to evoke a “sense of growing tension,” revealing the secondary, monolithic role played by the orchestral strings.[4]

In contrast to the bipolar moods of the instrumental groups Carter employs, the harmonic structure of the concerto manages to effectively incorporate a wide array of material. David Schiff claims in his analysis that “the basic harmonic unit is no longer the interval, as in Carter’s earlier music, but…three-note chords,” which are “limit[ed]” in “ spacing and inversions…in the interest of clear identification.”[5] When Carter was asked about Schiff’s assessment of the Piano Concerto’s harmony, Carter stated that, in general, he habitually does “distinguish between an interval and its inversion and often use[s] them for very different musical effects.”[6] In order to explore Carter’s precise manipulation of trichords, it is useful to note that he cautions the pianist in the performance notes concerning a series of passages in which vertical sonorities must be aurally prominent over apparent melodic lines.[7] An examination of three such passages will serve to illustrate Carter’s harmonic artistry.

First, Example 3 illustrates a very strict, concentrated use of compactly arranged set classes. These measures serve as an appropriate example of Carter’s assiduous attention to trichord placement. Most obviously, each set class is presented in identical fashion, resulting in a chain of (027) trichords construed so that the interior pitch intervals of each trichord are both 5. Moreover, the texture is antiphonal between the hands, forcing the ear to hear the distinct sonorities created by the juxtaposition of each pair of trichords sustained through tied durations. Such an arrangement clarifies an otherwise unclear use of transposition. Even though the single right-hand transposition (T3) suggests no significance when considered alone, the resulting pitch-class content creates jarring occurrences of interval class 1 between the hands. Thus, in the first pair of trichords, pitch classes 8, 9, 10, and 11 sound simultaneously; in the second, 1 and 2 occur together. In the third and final trichord, 0,1, 6, and 7 rub together.

Second, Example 4 reveals another result of Carter’s exact arrangement of trichords in pitch space. In these measures, a melding of set classes results between hands. The last sonority of ms. 133 creates two instances of (013), mirrored in pitch space around the common pitch class 4. The precisely opposite arrangement falls on the second sixteenth note of ms. 134; here, the dyad composed of pitch classes 5 and 8 forms two (013) trichords with the outer pitch classes 6 and 7. This example illustrates a sonic effect contrasting with the previous excerpt. Here, the two trichords are heard as a fused sonority, unlike the clashing alterations of Example 3.

Finally, Example 5 provides an even more sophisticated arrangement of trichords. The composer uses rhythm as a not-so-subtle suggestion concerning the hierarchy of the measures; each measure contains dotted-eighth “rest points” (see indication in the example) interspersed among moving sixteenths. This initial impression is confirmed when one examines the set classes assigned to each duration. While all the sixteenth notes involve set classes containing interval class 1, 2, or both, the rest points present interval classes 3 and 4. This difference can be heard as a decrease in dissonance, a sensitive treatment perhaps consistent with the more delicate nature of the piano’s role in the concertino. More careful attention to the set classes present in the measures will reveal that the reoccurrence of (013), (012), and (016) strengthens the cohesion of these measures, further illustrating Carter’s careful registral presentation of sets.

The transpositional and inversional relationships between these linked sets appears at first to be inconsequential; although the left-hand features two T1 relationships, the right hand involves both T3 and T9I. Nonetheless, this apparent inconsistency actually works to strengthen the precision of the set-class position by creating a wedge shape roughly centered on 5 in the left hand. The range of the extreme notes expands from +3 in the first vertical sonority of ms. 61 to a +19 at the end of ms. 672. In retrospect, the choice of T9I proves to be an appropriate operation to preserve the set class with virtually the same upward change of register that T3 would have produced.

When considered on the large- and small-scale levels, Carter’s Piano Concerto effects a remarkable synthesis of creative control. By endowing the harmonic language of his work with a nuanced precision, Carter maintains coherence amid the clashing global interactions of the concertino and ripieno groups. As a well-executed balancing act of order and diversity, his work carries on a longstanding tradition in western music.

[1] Meyer, Centennial Portrait, 188.

[2] Ibid., 189.

[3] Boretz, Conversation with Elliott Carter, 7.

[4] Carter, Piano Concerto, iv.

[5] Schiff, Music of Elliott Carter, 230-231.

[6] Bernard, Interview with Elliott Carter, 20-21.

[7] Carter, Piano Concerto, v.


Bernard, Jonathan W. “An Interview with Elliott Carter.” Perspectives of New Music 28, no. 2 (Summer 1990), http://www.jstor.org/stable/833018.

Bernard, Jonathan W. “Spatial Sets in Recent Music of Elliott Carter.” Music Analysis 2, no. 1 (March 1983), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853950.

Boretz, Benjamin and Elliott Carter. “Conversation with Elliott Carter.” Perspectives of New Music 8, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1970), http://www.jstor.org/stable/832445.

Carter, Elliott. Piano Concerto. New York, Associated Music Publishers, 1967.

Meyer, Felix and Anne C. Shreffler. Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents. Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008.

Schiff, David. The Music of Elliott Carter. London: Eulenburg Books, 1983.